In Palestine poetry escapes prisons | Aysha Taryam - GulfToday

In Palestine poetry escapes prisons

Aysha Taryam


Editor-in-Chief, Gulf Today News and Media.

A view of the Ofer military prison in the occupied West Bank. AFP

Artists have always felt society’s attention in one of two ways, embraced or attacked. Writers, painters and thinkers have a somewhat fickle relationship with the world that may begin with respect and end with hatred, begin with indifference and end with admiration or may never start at all. Those who have been gifted with a talent to express tend to invoke fear in people for speaking the truth as experienced, for showing the world reality through the lens of beauty no matter how deformed it might be. Embraced, an artist is raised to godly status, awarded, rewarded and remembered. Attacked, an artist is rendered a pariah deserving of nothing more than complete neglect.

Politics has long been a culprit in the cultivation of such an attitude towards the arts. Fearing criticism in all its forms the world of politics does not have a great appreciation for those of us who speak the truth as it is and not as it is painted through political lingo. During wars and major political turmoil, it is the arts world that is set on fire, the artists are the ones who are tracked and hunted, finding themselves in cages for reasons only politicians can see logical.

The current war on Gaza has since silenced almost 35,000 voices, shut 35,000 eyes and maimed thousands more, many of whom no longer possess the ability for expression. Yet art has a way of transcending, even flourishing, through pain; one even dares to say that pain is its greatest muse, and in Palestine pain has become part of everyday life. One of the greatest legends of the Arab arts, the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, was kept under house arrest by the Israeli government for three years for merely penning a poem. The novelist Ghasan Kanafani was assassinated by Mossad agents through a car bombing in Beirut that also took the life of his seventeen-year-old niece. The genius cartoonist Naji al-Ali, father of the infamous ten-year-old boy caricature Handala, who became a symbol of resistance, was shot in the neck by a suspected Mossad gunman outside the London offices of Kuwait’s al-Qabas. Some of the greatest minds insidiously buried before their time, silenced yet remain heard.

Israel’s well documented systematic targeting of truth seekers is a grave crime against humanity. It is an inexcusable eradication of a people’s interaction with the hideousness of their reality.

The world is continuously led to believe that this war against the arts is waged only in non-democratic nations and that the ones who preach the sanctity of free expression do not partake in such unjustness. Yet here is Israel, the West’s greatest accomplishment in the Middle East, the government that prides itself on being ‘the only democratic’ one in the region, since its inception partaking in the imprisoning and cold-blooded murder of those who practise this sanctified democratic right. Israel has waged 15 wars on the Gaza Strip this one being the deadliest and unrelentless of them all. In 2023 Gaza was on the brink of complete annihilation and Israel is now determined to complete this blatant occupation of the territory.

Gaza’s artists are continuously targeted even in the brief moments of ‘peace’ most of whom are serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prisons without a right for appeal. Basim Khandaqji has recently been in the news for winning the prestigious International Prize for Arab Fiction for his novel, A Mask, the Colour of the Sky. Khandaqji wrote it in the confinement of an Israeli prison which he has been in for the past 20 years, with three life sentences he has no hope of ever leaving it. Another Palestinian poet serving four life sentences in Israeli prisons is Nasser Shaweesh; he is working on publishing his poetry, each one painstakingly written seven or eight times in the hope that some make it out of the prison gates. Shaweesh likes to write while smoking and drinking coffee in a garden but there are no gardens in a prison and so at times he is carried on the shoulders of fellow inmates to look through a narrow window of the cell for a glimpse of nature surrounding the prison walls.

In his last interview Palestinian literature professor and poet Refaat Al Areer pleaded, his voice breaking as he feared the worst with Israeli bombs hailing from the dark skies. His now famous poem If I Must Die has become an ode to survival and a hopeful reminder that although the poet is no longer with us his words live on. One is haunted by his words in that interview, this writer often thinks about them in moments of darkness, as Alareer spoke of being an academic whose most lethal weapon is a marker with which, if faced by the Israeli soldiers charging into his home, he will throw at them in self-defence. Isn’t it the absolute truth? That all an artist has is his humble tools to fight against injustice and the ugliness of the world.

These names are some of many who have suffered and perished for their truth. Israel’s well documented systematic targeting of truth seekers is a grave crime against humanity. It is an inexcusable eradication of a people’s interaction with the hideousness of their reality. The poet Maya Angelou spoke of why the caged bird sings and of the courage it takes for literature to crush racism and face trauma. Angelou said the caged bird sings when his wing is bruised and he beats his bars to be free, here’s hoping that every cage be broken through and every bruised wing be healed by the joy of freedom so that it could soar. There are no gardens in prison for the poet to see yet his words make the cage bloom.

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